Photo by Finn Gross Maurer on Unsplash

By Erin McNeill, founder, MLN

“Listen up, kids. Do not use e-cigarettes. Vaping is for Adults Only. Are you getting the message?” Wink, wink.

That’s been the message from the e-cigarette industry, and the kids did get the message.

Teenagers are taking up the vaping craze, and with it threatening 50 years of public health gains, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, as a new generation gets hooked on nicotine through e-cigarettes. These devices are used to heat a liquid into an aerosol that is inhaled, called “vaping.” The aerosol delivers nicotine, flavoring, and other additives.

Vaping went up 900 percent among high school students between 2011 and 2015, according to the surgeon general’s 2016 report. The AAP in January said there’s been another 75 percent increase from 2017.

A surgeon general’s advisory in December warning of a vaping epidemic among young people pointed out that most e-cigarettes contain nicotine, which is highly addictive and exposure during adolescence can harm the developing brain, affecting learning, memory, and attention. In addition, the vapor can contain heavy metals, volatile organic compounds, and ultrafine particles that can cause lung damage.

Schools are struggling to combat the widespread use of e-cigarette devices in schools because, unlike cigarettes, it’s easy to conceal the devices, which can masquerade as flash drives, and don’t leave a trail of smelly smoke. It’s a problem because even though e-cigarettes are seen as a tool to help smokers quit, there’s evidence they are a gateway to smoking for youth, while also being a health hazard and addiction risk.

How did we get there? Because, for one, e-cigarette makers like Juul put out a strong message that vaping is an adult activity. Likely they’ve seen the extensive research funded by tobacco companies in the past that whispering to teens that cigarettes are a “no-no” is an anti-smoking message that is sure to backfire.

It’s no mystery why kids have turned to smoking in the past and why they are vaping today. Teens are programmed to seek independence. They want to feel grown up. At the same time, they want to fit in. The marketing preys on the psychology of youth.

The US Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission have noticed and are vowing to crack down on misleading marketing.

One of the most popular brands, Juul, responded to the FDA and FTC’s announcement in the fall with a statement that is practically an invitation to rebel against adult authority. It states in part: “No student at any high school should be in the possession of a Juul product.” And yet, high school principals are sending emails to parents about widespread “Juuling” in the building.

The companies deny they are marketing to kids, yet push sweet flavors like mango and packaging that resembles candy — such as the one labeled “Vape Heads Sour Smurf Sauce” — and pay celebrities to use the product. These and other techniques the e-cigarette makers are employing were previously perfected by the tobacco industry.

All the while, according to a recent survey by the anti-tobacco Truth Initiative found most people aged 15 to 24 did not know the products usually contain nicotine. The companies have been influencing teens and younger children to use an addictive substance before they were old enough to understand the long-term ramifications and withheld important information, all to ensure huge numbers of young people were addicted before authorities even began to consider regulations.

But it didn’t need to be this way.

There’s a proven solution that’s more fun than patrolling bathrooms and more effective in the long term than new government regulations: Curricula that helps students understand the manipulative marketing practices of industries that peddle harmful substances such as tobacco, alcohol, and junk food — in other words, media literacy education.

While programs that teach health facts are effective, it turns out that media literacy programs may work better, and bring the added benefit of critical thinking and life skills that can be applied to other decision-making as well. A University of Pittsburgh study in 2014 found that a media literacy-based course was significantly more effective at preventing teen smoking than an already effective health information-based course. When teens discover, through an inquiry-based process, that they’re being manipulated by megacorporations using the psychology of the risk- and independence-seeking teen brain, they are awakened, and they don’t want to fall for it anymore.

And maybe with a comprehensive program of media literacy skills in the k-12 curriculum, they won’t fall for the persuasive techniques of the alcohol and junk food industries, or the next nefarious marketing campaign.